Social networking software

A Tale of Two Facebooks

I love Facebook. I also hate it. And sometimes I'm indifferent, but not often.

As the big IPO day looms closer, lots of folks are taking a second look at this thing that started out as kind of a goofy diversion for college kids and has grown into the beast with 900 million heads.

For example, an Associated Press/CNBC poll this week notes that nearly half of Americans believe Facebook is a passing fad. On the other hand, roughly the same percentage don't. And when you get past the cranky "get off my lawn you damned kids" senior citizen crowd, the numbers zoom upward dramatically. Nearly 60 percent of adults under age 35 think Facebook is a good bet. A stunning 81 percent of them log onto Facebook -- most of them do it every day -- versus only 21 percent of codgers.

Do the math, and you realize that half of the people who say Facebook is a passing fad have never used it and never will. They will also die sooner than almost everyone else.

How about Facebook's business raison d'etre, advertising? There things don't look so rosy either. Facebook itself admitted that ad revenues are not keeping up with its pace of growth, especially on the mobile side. And General Motors made a point of announcing this week that it is pulling its Facebook advertising, calling it ineffective. Ford, on the other hand, is increasing its ad buys on the social network. And brands like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart are seeing a big lift from their Facebook pages, if not necessarily their ads. Again, it's a love/hate thing.

The jury is still out as to whether advertising alone will enable Facebook to reach Google-like revenues or if it will resort to doing other less pleasant things with our data.

On a personal level, I've been using Facebook since late 2006, or a few months after it was opened to the general public. At first it was just to mess around with this thing called "social networking," and most of my "friends" were PR people who were trying to pitch me something. But at some point, I began to use it in the way that God and Zuckerberg intended. About a year after that, I noticed my friends and family using it too. Even some of the most determined Luddites in my social circles were opening up Facebook accounts to see what the fuss was about.

As someone who spends too much time in front of glowing pixels, the main thing I love about Facebook is that it helps me feel connected. Some might also call that an illusion of connectedness, but I don't.

I now know, for example, how many of my aging ex-girlfriends are spending much of their time. Strangely, none of them are still pining for me some 20 or 30 years later.

The stories, photos, videos, and other effluvia people post on Facebook give me a window into their psyches, their philosophies, and their politics. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it isn't. But every day I'm exposed to stuff I wouldn't otherwise have seen.

Granted, there are days when I open up my news feed and think, "Who the frak are all these people? I don't remember friending any of them." On the other hand, I have made actual "friends" with some of my random Facebook friends. There are people I've gotten to know on Facebook whom I really like, even if we have yet to meet in three-dimensional space.

And of course there are total jerks, just as in life. But unlike in life, you can unfriend them with a few clicks. Try doing that with the a***** in the cubicle next to yours some time. That is also something I love about Facebook.

What I hate about Facebook is its arrogance about user privacy -- or at least, I used to hate its arrogance. I think Facebook has actually gotten much, much better about this over the last two years. Having been soundly spanked in the media (I got a few licks in myself) and scolded by the FTC and European privacy agencies, Facebook seems to have discovered that it cannot simply do whatever it feels like with the yottabytes of data we've all voluntarily handed to it -- regardless of how its hoodie-wearing CEO thinks the world should feel about sharing.

It no longer foists new services or redesigns upon its users in quite the same capricious way it did in the past. Usually there's some warning and even a trial phase. Granted, though, if you don't want to use Timeline, you're kinda screwed. Facebook's apps and tagging policies still mostly suck. And while the privacy tools Facebook now provides are a vast improvement over what it used to offer, they're still too complicated for most people. There is no easy one-click way to say "turn off all this annoying crap and share this stuff only with my actual friends, please." That's also something I hate.

Facebook posts being used as an excuse to fire employees or determine your creditworthiness and/or insurance coverage? Gotta hate that too.

As my colleague, Enterprise Windows blogger J. Peter Bruzzese notes, Facebook is most definitely a distraction, especially at work. He advises that IT departments block it. Good luck with that. I'm reminded of the story of the English King Canute, who sat on the edge of the North Sea and ordered the tides to stay out. Needless to say, Canute walked home with wet sandals. Apparently that demonstration was his way of saying, "See, even an all-powerful king has his limits."

If people want to use Facebook at work, they're going to use Facebook at work. And at home, on their phones, their TVs, and anywhere else Zuckerberg Inc. decides to put it.

Can you use Facebook in a way that gives you the benefits of connectedness and sharing without your data being used against you? That's a question to which I have no answer, nor, I think, does anyone else. But I suspect we'll soon find out, for better and possibly worse.

Are you with the pro-Facebook hipsters or the "get off my lawn" crowd? Cast your vote below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "A tale of two Facebooks," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments